Friday, February 8, 2008

Iraqi Dinner at the Souqs

Darbi and I have meant to go to the souqs (market place) for Iraqi food for about a week now and last night both our schedules aligned and we headed off into the Thursday night traffic for the souqs. Recall that the weekends here are Friday & Saturday, so Thursday night is similar to a Friday night back home- intersections are packed, families are out, workers have the next day off and you're generally waiting 2-3 lights to make it through some of the busier intersections. Took us about 30-40 minutes to get there and find parking, not aided by the fact that we got lost in the one-ways and twisting and turnings of the older city streets. 
I have only heard of the souqs but had never visited this shopping area until last evening. It's an outdoor market with very narrow pedestrian only streets- similar to older Arabian cities. Small shops and stalls line every narrow street- reminds me of the touristy Plaka neighborhood of Athens. The souqs look weathered and authentic but don't be fooled- it's all brand new. It was built to look old and authentic- a 'Disneyed' souq if you will. We parked outside and wandered in, past the brilliant colored lights and cameras recording Qatari men signing and playing music, past the sheesha smokers (flavored tobacco water pipes) and found the Iraqi restaurant. We opt to sit outside for a view of the open-fire bbq, the people watching, and the fact that it was only 12 C or 54 F. (My apologies to readers in the Midwest United States who received 10 inches of snow in 6 hours). :)

We started with a parsley flavored-hummus (I failed to document the names of the dishes- my apologies) with copious amounts of huge soft/crispy flat bread and tall glasses of lemon-mint juice. Our waiter recommended a dish that were 3 balls of spiced-meat mixture encased in couscous and served with a red sauce. Fantastic. He also recommended a traditional Iraqi preparation of lamb (some part of the lamb spine) on a bed of rice, with some small (saffron?) flavored noodles?veggies?dunno? and served with veggies in another red sauce and stewed black eyed peas with dill and what I thought I recognized as molokhia from my previous cooking experience. Very, very good food. We noted how fresh and comparatively healthy our meal was compared to typical American fare. A huge bowl of whole fruits arrived after our meal and I snagged a banana for my breakfast. Total for the meal-$33 for two of us including tip. 
Walking around after our meal past the bustling cafes, shops, and the musicians, I noted the quantity of Qataris, Arabs, and some Westerners. I don't recall seeing immigrant laborers. We wandered to the 'date man' who had some tasty dates and I purchased 3 oz of saffron for 20 QR  ($5.5 US). Being American and experienced at bargaining, I only bargained him down 5 QR from the original price, but after checking prices elsewhere- I'll be bolder next time. Making our way out of the souqs, we happened to find a loose tea vendor from Syria that Darbi had been seeking. However, we quickly realized that our lack of Arabic, his lack of English and our combined hand gestures, facial expressions,  and smiles would only get us so far. We vowed to return with Greg, our coworker, who has a better command of Arabic than us. As we left, the Syrain tea vendor from Damascus told us that 'Damascus' (point to himself), 'America' (point to us), and then said 'We love you' and told us we were cool. Far from a come on, we interpreted this as folks from Damascus we ok with Americans (or perhaps earnest American females who were honestly interested in the culture and purchasing something). Either way- we'll be back. 
As we drove away from the souq, my American sweet tooth took over and I expressed desire for something sweet. Darbi indulged me and promptly turned toward Ramada junction (aka ' Colesterol Corner'), populated with fast food joints such as McDonald's, Hardees, Burger King, Johnny Rockets, TCBY, and Dairy Queen. We headed for DQ, as I could do with a Butterfinger Blizzard and hadn't had one in a good while. (I also needed to compare it to the American product, strictly for food and cultural research you see). Small Butterfinger Blizzard 12QR, or $3.30 US. Not bad- no difference as far as I could tell, although I was disappointed that the cup didn't have DQ in Arabic (only the sign outside did). All in all- a very rewarding food evening. 

I found this evening to be one of those moments where I am startled into realizing where I am, what I'm doing. When I travel, I sometimes imagined my current location as a pin on a map and I have moments here where I recall that my pin is currently in this tiny country in the Arabian Gulf.  Not only that, but I'm here with a good friend, whom I met 6 years ago, and our paths have remarkably followed each other through college, Fifth Year, and now Qatar. Sometimes I wonder how and why my life has happened to me as it has- but whatever the case, I'm thankful for it.

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